There is a lot that goes into a movie if you want it to be successful. You have to cram a coherent plot, well-rounded characters, and up to three flashbacks of Bruce Wayne’s parents getting murdered into 90 minutes (or three hours if you’re Zack Snyder). So stock characters and recurring clichés get used often, so they don’t have to waste 15 minutes explaining that the guy in glasses is a scientist. He’s got glasses, what else could he be? But some of those pre-boxed packages have some problems.
Boston Men Are Emotionless Robots
Movies would have us believe that Boston is the national capital of repression. You’d be hard-pressed to find many differences in the characters of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. Casey Affleck has built such a career out of his Boston accent and mopey face that he desperately tried to avoid using the accent in his Oscar-winning performance for Manchester By The Sea. To no avail.
Why We Watch: The idea of hard-hearted, angry Bostonian men is somewhat grounded in reality. Most of those characters are supposed to be “Southies” – residents of the predominantly Irish neighborhood in South Boston. That’s always been a tough place, and was home to some big-time criminals back in the ’70s and ’80s. Throw in hundreds of sexually-abusive priests who primarily targeted young boys, and you’ve got entire generations of men growing up terrified of showing weakness.
But obviously, there’s more to Bostonians than deeply rooted anger and a funny way of saying “chowder.” Not everybody from Boston is a white Irish Southie. Contrary to popular belief, Boston is only 54 percent white, and only 32 percent angsty. Boston has a rich multicultural history, and there’s no reason for movies to ignore that just because it also sometimes beats that multicultural history with a stick.
Congress Is Evil, Presidents Are Awesome
There are more evil politicians in movies than there are tattoos at a Saliva concert. And yet none of them ever seem to be the president. Seriously, every movie with a shady politician somehow manages to limit their offices to senators and congressmen, with the occasional CIA director thrown in to keep things spicy. Movies like Iron Man 3, X-Men, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The American President, and others revolve primarily around conspiratorial senators, vice presidents, and the like abusing their power. But wouldn’t it make more sense to have an evil president? Isn’t that a scarier proposition?
Then films like Air Force One, Independence Day, and the bizarrely interchangeable Olympus Has Fallen / White House Down combo take it a step further, depicting the president as a gun-toting warrior who’s immune to the seductive charms of stupid “politics.”
Why We Watch: Americans see Congress as a bunch of old, out-of-touch white men deep in the pockets of special interests. We don’t agree on much these days, but we do agree on how much we hate the people we elected to office. But the American government is protected by a system of checks and balances that don’t allow any one branch (or person) to completely take over. But an efficiently run bipartisan commission doesn’t readily lend itself to shootouts with M16s or fantastic one-liners.
Congressmen are, by definition, members of a large body that have to compromise to get things done. We don’t want that; we want them to deliver on their campaign promise of making Taco Bell the national religion. All the backchannel dealings and political doublespeak isn’t very heroic. We want to see a hero make a grand speech before shooting an undead fascist reptilian in the neck, and we don’t want to see it get held up in committee.
Banging Moms Is Awesome, Banging Dads Is Horrifying
See if you recognize this plot: An embarrassingly good-looking mother flits about, giving her child shame and everybody else throbbing erections. Stifler’s mom in American Pie was the first woman in pop culture to be reverently referred to as a MILF. Barney from How I Met Your Mother (hilariously) loses his virginity to his friend’s mom, Rhonda “The Man-maker” French, and “becomes a man” because of it. And pretty much all the guys in Always Sunny have had sex with each other’s moms. Young men and older women lusting after each other. Sometimes it’s supposed to be gross, but it’s never seriously wrong.
On the flip side, there’s nothing more horrifying than a younger woman with an old man. Every woman in a relationship with an older man is forced into it – Beetlejuice, Lemony Snicket, or Mad Max: Fury Road. Or else they’re a seriously screwed up and broken person, like in Adventureland, White Bird In A Blizzard, and American Beauty. If a young woman is involved with an older man, there’s sure to be some kind of problem in the relationship, and it’s a big deal and a huge driver in the plot of that movie.
Why We Watch: In the real world, it’s older men who most frequently date and take advantage of younger women. In many cultures, women are valued primarily for their youth and sex appeal. Sometimes these films can be an attempt to call out that paradigm, but often it ends up reinforcing it instead.
By suggesting that it’s hilarious for an older woman to be into a younger man (or for a younger man to be attracted to her), they’re still enforcing the idea that young men can and should sexually conquer whatever woman they feel like. When Fez and Kelso (falsely) believe Eric slept with Donna’s mom in That 70s Show, they worship him like a god. That isn’t exactly empowering Donna’s mom.
Older women dating young men is almost always a score for the man. Big, 17 Again, and Blank Check all involve minors winning the affection of women at least 15 years their senior. Despite the statutory rape-y-ness of these relationships, we as the audience are led to believe that everything is cool, because women couldn’t possibly take advantage of men. That’s something only creepy old men do.
And with old men and underage women, it’s still the same power dynamic, even though the ages are reversed. The older men are dominating young women, and while some movies do depict this as a bad thing, they still act like women are essentially powerless. No matter how you slice it, men are still the sexual instigators and hold all the power in these relationships, whether by forcing the young women to do what they want or seducing them with their irresistible, disturbingly boyish charm.
People With Prosthetic Limbs Are Evil
You see a person with a prosthetic limb and think, I wonder what happened to that otherwise entirely normal person? Screenwriters see people with prosthetic limbs and think, What did those evil bastards do to deserve losing a whole limb?!
What is the final step in the loss of Anakin Skywalker’s humanity? Getting all his body parts chopped off, forcing him to be remade as an evil magical space robot-wizard. The one-armed man in The Fugitive was hired to knock off Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife despite A) it being way harder to kill people with only one arm, and B) a one-armed guy being infinitely easier to trace. That leads us to think that in the world of The Fugitive, it’s damn near impossible to hire a murderer with all his appendages. Bucky from Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t merely killing people; he’s killing people with a robot arm. That’s so much worse!
Why We Watch: “But there are examples of heroes having prosthetics,” you scream at your phone, drawing odd looks from the other bus passengers. “Ever heard of Luke Skywalker?” There’s a difference: He can “pass.” Luke’s hand looks and functions as normal, no matter how close you get, whereas Vader has that weird harmonica set-up when they take off his helmet.
Screenwriters think they’re saving time by showing us a character’s inner evil. Missing a chunk of arm is analogous to missing part of their humanity. That’s why half the Bond villains replace body parts with weapons and every pirate captain is missing a leg. It’s an easy way to tell the audience “Hey, this one-limbed dude is evil. You can tell, because he doesn’t have a as many limbs as he should.”
The problem is that by repeating this trope so frequently, it starts to feel like Hollywood actually has some kind of issue with handicapped people. And sure, some people with prosthetic limbs are probably housing some sort of ion cannon in there, but certainly not all of them.
The Death Of A Woman Is Way More Important Than The Death Of A Man
When we see Bruce Wayne’s parents murdered in Batman v. Superman, we watch his mother die so very, very slowly. This is a huge part of the film, and who Batman becomes. Stupid or not, the whole third act hinges around his mother – specifically, her name. Oh, also his dad died too. Probably. Who cares?
In Braveheart, it’s definitely sad that Billy Braveheart’s father dies, but when his wife dies, he decides to burn Scotland to the ground. Women are just inherently less killable than men.
Why We Watch: For decades, we’ve seen men killed in every imaginable way. Limbs are torn off, brains are blown out, and so many crotches have been punched that it’s a wonder children are still being born at all. And yet it’s usually “Oh no! He’s dead! Welp, no use dwelling on the past!” We’ve been conditioned to expect men to escape from all sorts of harrowing situations using their wit and brawn, so it feels like a real man would have found a way to turn the tables on his fate. If a man dies, you don’t want to rub it in by, like, making a big deal out of it. But women usually need saving. Having a woman beaten, murdered, or otherwise harmed is supposed to remind us that the stakes are high. To Hollywood, a woman’s death simply means more. Not her life, though. Don’t be ridiculous.